WASHINGTON — Civil rights groups on Thursday called on President Joe Biden’s administration to disavow century-old Supreme Court rulings steeped in racist language that have allowed the government to treat people living in Puerto Rico and other other US territories differently from other Americans.
The 13 groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland that the Justice Department should publicly condemn a series of rulings from the early 1900s called the Insular Cases.
Activists pointed to Biden’s January 2021 executive order in which he pledged to advance racial equity. Other groups signing the letter included the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Hispanic Federation, an advocacy group for Latinos.
The rulings, from 1901, came in the aftermath of the acquisition of overseas territories following the Spanish-American War of 1898 and established that Puerto Ricans and those living in certain other U.S. territories do not do not have the same rights under the US Constitution as people living in US states.
One Supreme Court justice at the time referred to territories “inhabited by extraterrestrial races” and another endorsed the idea that the United States could seize “an unknown island, inhabited by a uncivilized race” without conferring citizenship.
The letter from the activists stated that “the Justice Department’s continued commitment to island affairs cannot be reconciled with this administration’s commitment to positively advancing equity and racial justice.”
Activists said they were prompted to write the letter by the Justice Department’s approach to a Supreme Court in November pleading regarding whether Congress can bar Puerto Ricans from the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program that provides benefits to low-income elderly, blind, and disabled people.
During oral argument, Judge Neil Gorsuch specifically asked Deputy Solicitor General Curtis Gannon, representing the administration, for his position on the cases.
“Why shouldn’t we just admit that island affairs have been badly decided?” asked Gorsuch.
Gannon responded that while “reasoning and rhetoric are obviously anathema”, the Supreme Court did not need to say anything about the cases to decide the issue of SSI benefits, thereby missing an opportunity to adjudicate them. speak out, activists said.
“Like having laws that don’t prohibit lynching”
“It’s like having laws on the books that don’t prohibit lynching,” said Laura Esquivel, vice president of federal policy and advocacy at the Hispanic Federation. “Why would the US government want to leave these laws there? Why wouldn’t they repudiate them?
Alejandro Ortiz, a lawyer for the ACLU, said it would be an ‘easy win’ for the Biden administration to condemn the island cases because there is now a consensus that they were based on racist reasoning. .
“It’s a simple example of systemic racism, where racism has been baked into how the federal government treats people who live in the territories, who are overwhelmingly people of color,” Ortiz added.
Island cases could play a bigger role in another case headed to judges over whether people born in American Samoa, another territory, are entitled to full US citizenship at birth.
There are five US territories in total – the other three being Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. Puerto Rico is by far the most populous, with approximately 3 million inhabitants. Many Puerto Ricans have long complained that residents of the Caribbean island are treated worse than other Americans, despite being US citizens.
In the court case, Biden’s Justice Department pursued an appeal originally filed by former Republican President Donald Trump’s administration while urging Congress to extend SSI benefits to Puerto Rico.
Based on the oral argument, it was unclear how the Supreme Court would rule, with a decision expected by the end of June.
If the court rules in favor of Puerto Rican resident Jose Luis Vaello-Madero, who argued he should receive the benefit, more than 300,000 Puerto Rican residents could become eligible at an estimated cost to the US government of $2 billion. dollars per year.